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Monday, November 7, 2011

November 7, 2011: Moments That Remain 1

[The 2011 New England American Studies Association conference has come and gone; but while I’ve come to the inspiring end of that more than year-long road, I can’t quite let go. So each day this week I’ll briefly highlight one powerful and affecting moment from the conference’s full and diverse and profoundly perfect two days.]

The walls of the main exhibition space in Pilgrim Hall are covered with huge paintings of key moments in the Pilgrim narrative: the arrival of the Mayflower, scenes from the devastating first winter, the “First Thanksgiving” in the following year, and so on. Given that the Hall’s purpose is to serve as a collection of Pilgrim artifacts and a commemoration of Pilgrim history, those artistic images are hardly surprising, and perhaps not even striking (although their size and grandeur are certainly impressive no matter what). Yet in the early evening of Friday November 4th, as the first day of the NEASA conference ended with a fun and engaging set of creative readings and performances by four regional writers, the space and its walls and images felt without question striking, brought into the present and into conversation in visceral and powerful ways.
You see, those four writers are all Native Americans, indigenous New England voices. The first, Larry Spotted Crown Mann, began his reading with a Nipmuc prayer and a welcoming song (both sung and performed on the drum); and while Mann and his fellow readers Mihku Paul, Melissa Zobel, and Joan Tavares Avant read pieces that utilized distinct literary genres and engaged with a wide and rich variety of themes and identities and experiences, they all consistently circled back to indigenous identities and perspectives. Given both the explicit and implicit images of Native identities represented on the walls—the lone Wampanoag virtually bowing before fearful Pilgrim arrivals in the room’s largest picture, for example; the absence of Massasoit and his more than 60 warriors from the “Thanksgiving” picture, for another—the event could with a good deal of justice be said to have exemplified the third action in our conference subtitle: resisting national narratives.

Yet it will as no surprise to any readers of this blog that the moment resonated differently for me. After all, our national narratives are as much the Wampanoag’s as the Pilgrims’—perhaps not the most prominent or mythologized such narratives, but the most accurate and genuine ones. And even more significantly, I would argue that as soon as those two communities encountered one another on the shores of Cape Cod in November 1620, the most genuine ensuing communal narratives were strikingly like those embodied by the readers and walls on Friday evening in Pilgrim Hall—conflicted but connected, challenging but conversational, incomplete but inspiring. Mann also talked in his performance about how much the land under us, like the histories and stories he shared, belongs to, and indeed defines, all of us, of every American community and culture; and of the central national community and culture that exists only through and between all of ours.
I felt that on Friday evening, as powerfully as I ever have. More tomorrow,

PS. If you were at the conference, please feel very free to add your thoughts or responses here!

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